Church Overlooks Mentally Ill

The Christian Century, March 8, 2000 | Go to article overview

Church Overlooks Mentally Ill


United Methodist pastors agree that the church should become more involved in education about mental illness and families affected by the disease, but few de, al with the mentally ill on a regular basis, a new survey shows. Researchers from Indiana University East and Ball State University in Indiana conducted a survey of 1,031 United Methodist pastors in Indiana and Virginia. Funding came from the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research.

The results didn't surprise Joan LaFuze, the medical physiologist and professor at IU East who initiated the survey. Currently members of First United Methodist Church in Hagerstown, Indiana, the 62-year-old and her husband, Ralph, are lifelong Methodists. They have a son who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1981 and a daughter diagnosed with panic disorder in 1982.

"I can't describe what happens when you enter the world of mental illness," LaFuze told United Methodist News Service. "It was like going to a foreign country." While the LaFuzes found the church loving and supportive, they did not find it helpful in trying to deal with the crisis that mental illness caused in their family. She hopes the study "is a beginning in looking at the role of pastors and the role of the church in meeting the needs" of families facing mental illness.

Among the survey's findings:

* Most pastors reported knowing five or fewer families, on average, with mental illness in their congregations.

* Fewer than a third worked in churches that offered outreach services for the mentally ill and only 10 percent had counseled a mentally ill person on a weekly basis.

* About 90 percent rejected attitudes of hopelessness or blame regarding mental illness and agreed the church should sponsor more programs that educate pastors and support families.

Despite the lack of involvement, 43 percent of the pastors surveyed acknowledged that an immediate family member suffers from some sort of mental illness. "They were much more personally aware of mental illness through their families than their parishioners," LaFuze said.

She believes that pastors--as leaders of the congregation--and as many laypeople as possible need to understand the nature of mental illness. While many people realize that mental illness has a biological component, she explained, they are not necessarily aware that the behaviors exhibited "are actually symptoms of an illness," in the same way that a fever or cough is a symptom. …

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